Chase team: Scott Blair, Jeff Crum, Daniel Johnson.
January had already been a very active month across Arkansas. I had chased on the 8th and the 17th, which provided two classic supercells. The forecast models on Monday, January 18, already hinted at another possible chase by the end of the week. It was still too early to tell if it would be a chase day, but the intense trough and wind patterns combined with unusually warm temperatures made it a day to watch closely.
By Wednesday, all the models were in favor of a large outbreak across Arkansas. I spent Wednesday night preparing for the chase. I fully equiped my chasemobile, forecasted, plus made and received many phone calls from chase partners and others. My chase partners, George Hoelzeman and Jeff Crum, both agreed that Thursday would be a huge day. George decided he would chase in Central AR beginning around mid afternoon, while Jeff would meet me in North Little Rock around midday.
All of us were in high hopes for the next day.
I began to forecast at the magical hour of 5am. Before I started forecasting, I checked my mail. A recent message with the title "High Risk" caught my eye. It was from George. The SPC had issued a high risk of severe weather across much of the state. As I watched the models and conditions, I knew there was a strong likleyhood for severe storms and tornadoes.
I called Jeff Crum at 7:30am and gave a brief summary. We decided to meet at the NWSFO LIT at 12:30pm to forecast with senior forecaster, John Lewis, who is a great friend. I looked over more models and surface maps around 11am. Temperatures were already warm with that "feel" in the air. I made my final preparations and walked out the door.
I arrived at the NWS around 12:30pm. I talked with John Lewis and many other forecasters that gave helpful information. After a summary of the situation, I stepped outside and enjoyed the unstable air.
At 12:40pm, I met Jeff Crum and Daniel Johnson, another chaser. We forecasted the best area for tornadoes. As any chase, this was a critical step in deciding how successful the day would be. All of us agreed that Southeast to East Central AR would be our target area. (Its amazing how accurate this forecast was!) At 1:15pm, we met a chase team of three from Russellville. Their team was led by Dave Sheets. All six of us described the plans for the day. By 1:20pm, we left the NWS and began the chase! Jeff and Daniel rode in a white Dodge truck, while I took the usual chasemobile. We stayed in contact by 2-way business radio.
We hit I-40 briefly, and moved south on I-30 before taking Highway 65. At 1:55pm, we pulled off in Redfield at the Fina Gas Station. We discussed the situation and watched the clouds breaking, plus some small convection was firing. Jeff and Daniel quickly grabbed a drink and we were back on the road around 2pm. Around 2:10pm, the TV and NOAA Weather Radio sounded the alarm that a tornado watch had just been issued for all of AR except the extreme NW. I quickly told Jeff the news over the radio. We decided to pull off in Pine Bluff. Before we reached Pine Bluff, severe t-storm warnings were already being issued for parts of SW and Central AR. We reached the exit and went through a maze of streets to reach the Radio Shack. Tornado warnings were issued for parts of SW AR along I-30. Jeff purchased a part for his Ham Radio and Daniel bought a weather radio. I watched the radar and warnings from inside my chasemobile. Jeff and Daniel exited Radio Shack, and I gave them a quick summary of the recent developments.
At this point, no severe t-storms had developed away from the dry line, which was located along I-30.
We considered moving west and chasing near the dry line. The problem was there were so many cells clustered near each other. We were hoping for an isolated supercell that would have good visibility near our target area. We scanned the skies outside the Radio Shack and picked out some rapidly building convection near our location. Trees were making it difficult to get a good view. We decided to drive north on Highway 65. As we took the highway, all of us were impressed with the growing storm. I glanced at the TV and discovered a severe t-storm warning had just been issued for the storm in Cleveland County. I quickly told Jeff and we pulled off at the first exit. We pulled into a gas station and drove to the back where a large gravel parking lot gave us a good view. The top of the severe storm was visible. It had good structure and was rapidly building. The radar on the TV also confirmed it was much stronger. We decided to focus our attention on the storm. Jeff and I pulled out our maps and debated our next move. After considering all the factors, we hit Highway 79 and drove toward the severe cell.
While driving on Highway 79, we positioned southwest to the clearly visible storm. At 3:55pm, the first signs of interesting activity occured. Jeff excitedly called over the radio, "Look right! Pull off right here!" Sure enough! A wall cloud had just developed.
It was a beautiful sight; bright white towers with a dark base and wall cloud. Lightning began to strike near the clearly defined rain shaft. Jeff called the report onto Skywarn. Shortly after, the wall cloud lifted. We jumped into our chasemobiles and chased after the storm.
We followed it for a good period of time. By 4:35pm, it was still severe, although no signs of tornadic activity was present. Across rest of Arkansas, it was another matter. Supercells and tornado warnings were lined up along the dry line from White County, near Searcy, down to Miller County, near Texarkana. We both agreed that tracking north on Highway 13 into Central AR might be a good plan. We also agreed that the moment we left the storm, it would turn tornadic. We arrived and pulled over near Highway 13 to discuss the situation. I ended up leaving my radio with Jeff and Daniel and off we went northbound on Highway 13.
After a few curves in the road, what I feared became true. I looked back at the storm we were leaving and discovered a funnel cloud snaking down. Hey Jeff...uh..Jeff! I guess I shouldn't have given up the radio. I had no communication to get in touch with Jeff or Daniel. For five minutes, I tried everything I could to get their attention. It was impossible to speed due to the turns in the road. I waved and pointed out the window, honked my horn, and flashed my lights.
Finally, Jeff saw me and the funnel in his mirror. I quickly stopped, as Jeff stopped and turned around. Before we jumped out, a tornado warning was issued for the storm. Time check was 4:50pm as I snatched my video and still cameras and began shooting the impressive storm. Jeff grabbed his ham radio and reported the funnel cloud. The funnel developed in the rain free base, but not associated with the wall cloud. It was more of a landspout funnel. A large hail shaft and a strong wall cloud were also visible. The storm and wall cloud had lower and mid level cloud features wrapping around. We were now completly focused on this amazing supercell. Jeff proposed we go back the way we came and hit Highway 79 again. As we left around 4:55pm, a funnel cloud was developing under the wall cloud. We were a good ten miles away and needed to reach the storm quickly. This storm was at the point of dropping a tornado any second. (It actually did drop a tornado at 5:02pm, 7 minutes after we left).
We were now back in radio contact as we tracked back on Highway 79. After ten miles, we stopped in Stuttgart for gas. Shortly after, we turned north on Highway 11. This maneuver would allow us to intercept the supercell along I-40 near Wheatly, AR. As we blasted north on Highway 11, the cell produced its first tornado. We could see the wall cloud, but it was a good distance away and rows of trees in the distance blocked the view below the wall cloud. Therefore, the tornado was blocked by trees. The sun was also blocked out, but due to another supercell to our southwest near Pine Bluff. This supercell was producing a couple very damaging tornadoes near White Hall at the same time. (Later, I actually encounter this same supercell near Carlisle, AR). The sky turned a strange dull red color to our southwest. The time spent on Highway 11 made me nervous. It was looking less likley that a daytime tornado would be possible. In fact, the time was already 5:40pm when we neared I-40, so I knew I would have to use the lightning as the light source for pictures.
The critical part of the chase arrived around 5:45pm as we hit I-40 at Hazen and moved eastbound on our interception road. Twilight was just setting in as I checked the radar. The storm was still very strong and was approaching I-40 to the east of Brinkley, which was under 20 miles away. After driving a few miles east, the wall cloud appeared in the distance, lined up with I-40. The base was too dark to see anything, but we kept our eyes wide open. Reports began to come in of a funnel cloud near I-40. As we arrived near Brinkley, I spotted six cars pulled under an overpass. The next overpass contained a few more cars parked for shelter. My excitement level began to rise as I knew something was going on. At about that point, Jeff received a report and relayed it over radio saying, "Tornado crossed the interstate by Wheatly, now over to our left. We need to keep our heads up. They've got property damage and we are coming in behind it." This was the first report we received about this storm that a tornado had touched down.
I was excited, but also concerned for the Wheatly residents. The wall cloud crossed I-40 as we pulled into perfect position in relation to the supercell.
Now, I need to explain why this is perfect position.
The main rain and hail shaft was located behind the wall cloud. During a day chase, this would be a bad place to be (SW of the storm) because bad contrast would exist. However, the opposite is true for a night chase. Since the precip shaft is behind the wall cloud, the area of concern is backlit by lightning. Also, the storm is to the NE of the observer, which results in little threat of the storm moving into the observer.
Traffic was slowing for obvious reasons. The wall cloud continued to be outlined by an impressive lightning show. A funnel cloud became visible below the wall cloud. Still, no tornado. Finally, it happened.
A huge sustained lightning lit the entire base backlighting two tornadoes on the ground. Enthusiasticly, I yelled, "Tornado on the ground! Tornado is on the ground at this present time!" Luckily, my mounted video camera was recording to catch this incredible sight. I quickly pulled into the right lane and took the Wheatly exit. I called Jeff over the radio stating, "Jeff, tornado on the ground! I see it! I'm pulling off on exit 221, tornado on the ground!" As I turned left onto the overpass, Jeff responded, "Large tornado on the ground to the left! Very large tornado on the ground under the wall cloud."
I pulled off to the side of the overpass. I jumped out, grabbed my video camera and tripod, and was set in a matter of seconds. The tornado on the left of the wall cloud had already vanished. The tornado on the right was still there, and very visible when lightning struck. The entire supercell was a dramatic sight. The wall cloud was large with nice striations. The tornado was ominous as it appeared on and off. Shortly after, the twister began to tilt and rope out. Later, I received a glance of the condensation funnel lifting off the ground. The Wheatly Tornado had left the world.
I rushed back onto I-40 traveling eastbound. After a little trouble with the radio, I got back into radio contact with Jeff. He was at the Palestine exit, about ten miles to my east. I met him there and continued to drive, now northbound on the rough Highway 261. The plan was to come in behind the storm at Wynne. However, a brach of the highway turned into gravel, and became impossible to travel. Also, large holes and bad bridges in the road made traveling less desirable. We decided to turn around and go back to the interestate to choose the next move. Going back towards the interstate was just as bad. Highway 261 provided sharp turns, and this, added with wet roads, made for dangerous driving. We finally reached the ramp for I-40. Jeff and Daniel decided to move east towards Critienden and Mississippi Counties, while I decided to move back west towards the dry line. (Both groups viewed another tornado after separating.)
I figured the drive back to Central Arkansas would be somewhat boring, since the dry line was still located over the Little Rock area. However, the first five minutes on I-40 changed my mind pretty quick. Lightning became faint in the distance to my SW, W, and NW. A few ambulances sped by, going away and towards me. I started to wonder how big and destructive this outbreak actually was. A supercell to my north was producing vivid lightning. I watched it for some time, but no wall cloud was evident. I decided to continue my journey westward.
As I crossed the Lonoke/Prairie County line, the action picked up once again. Lightning grew frequent enough for me to spot a wall cloud. This dangerous storm had originated in Lafayette County in SW AR tracking to the northeast and producing a tornado in White
Hall and Pine Bluff. After a 140 mile life, it was crossing the interstate right in front of me. I pulled off at the Carlisle exit to get a better view. As I looked for a location to take pictures, I came across a gas station/truck stop that contained nearly 20 cars watching the storm. The eerie thing was all the power was out. Everywhere I looked, there was no power, including the lack of any car lights. I found another location near I-40, where two police cars were parked, watching the lowering cloud cross near the city. The wall cloud was well defined, with a very nice, and long beavers tail. A small, rough looking funnel also became visible as the wall cloud crossed the interstate. Shortly after, I decided to get back on I-40, since the cloud had passed and I had a bad NW view. After a short drive, I pulled off again. I was having trouble filming through the windows due to the glare, so I decided to get out and shoot. The inflow winds were very strong out of the SE, gusting near 45mph. The cell finally lost the funnel and tracked too far north to view.
By 7:30pm, the dry line was still over the Little Rock area. However, some of the convection was evolving into a squall line, while a few supercells still ran ahead of the line. The squall line would cut down the tornado threat. I was about 30 miles away from the Little Rock area, and decided to end the chase soon. A severe t-storm warning was in effect for Pulaski and Lonoke Counties until around 8pm, so I kept that in mind.
As I crossed into Pulaski County (Little Rock's county), I noticed another area of intense lightning. It was not as frequent as the storms I had chased earlier, but it was worth watching. After viewing it briefly, I saw a suspicious looking cloud. I watched it a little longer, and discovered it was, in fact, a funnel cloud. The funnel quickly lowered half way down to the ground. I immediately pulled off, grabbed my camera and jumped outside. Right after that around 7:55pm, debris began circulating below the funnel. The lightning and Jacksonville city lights lit the tornado. "Tornado on the ground!" This storm was not under a tornado warning. After a minute, the tornado lifted. The condensation funnel never visually touched the ground. After that, I slowly moved west toward Little Rock. Traffic was very slow, and for a big reason. An earlier tornado had littered I-40 with five semi trucks near the Galloway exit, just outside of Little Rock. All sorts of trouble and confusion could be seen. This was a scary sight. After watching storms all day, the result of a storm had given people a reality check. I decided to enter Little Rock and stop off at George's house, since it was on the way home. We shared stories of each others chases and listened to the NOAA WX Radio scream warning after warning. I finally arrived home around 8:30pm, as the squall line hit Little Rock and ended the chase day.
The 350 mile journey gave all sorts of excitement and awe. Three tornadoes (2 Wheatley,F-3/Jacksonville,F-0), six wall clouds, and four funnels made up incredible highlights. Arkansans will also never forget the terror brought by the 60+ confirmed tornadoes across the state. It was a very special and successful day, perhaps one of the best ever. The chase day of January 21, 1999 will be one I will never forget. -Scott F. Blair
CONFIRMED LOCAL STORM REPORT
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE LITTLE ROCK, AR
THU JAN 21 1999
0600 PM WHEATLEY AR TORNADO
01/21/99 MONROE AND ST. FRANCIS
2 MILES EAST OF CLARENDON TO 4 MILES WEST OF HAWKINS 5:02 PM – 6:00 PM. A STRONG (F3) TORNADO HAD A PATH LENGTH OF 36 MILES. NINE PEOPLE WERE INJURED.
0615 PM 1 W COLT AR TORNADO
01/21/99 ST. FRANCIS
1 MILE WEST OF COLT 6:15 PM. A WEAK (F0) TORNADO TOUCHED DOWN BRIEFLY.
0759 PM 4 S JACKSONVILLE AR TORNADO
4S JACKSONVILLE TO 3SE JACKSONVILLE. AFFECTED PULASKI COUNTY... INCLUDING AREAS SOUTHEAST OF JACKSONVILLE. F0. ON THE GROUND FOR 1 MILE. 759PM TO 801PM.